Vilakazi Street, Soweto

By Nyasha Bhobo

Vilakazi Street, in Soweto Township, South Africa, is among the world’s most famous and visited streets. The reason: it is the only street in the world where two unrelated Nobel laureates have lived, namely Mr. Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner, and the Reverend Desmond Tutu.

I first visited Vilakazi Street in 2002, when the Internet was still unknown in South Africa, when clunky phone lines were the instrument to make international calls, and when the dusty tourist booklet was the tool for finding your way around towns, cities, or villages. Back then Vilakazi Street was a street filled with the mad rush of Black morning laborers going to work in the nearby factories of Johannesburg, Africa’s wealthiest city. Life for most Black families was formalized and everywhere the same—a breadwinner, usually male, caught the municipal bus to the factory at 6am only to be seen walking home along Vilakazi Street at the end of his shift, 4pm. There were a few Black-owned Toyota minibus taxis back then. Leyland and Scania municipal transit buses used to dominate Vilakazi Street’s crowded lanes.

Vilakazi Street is in the southwest of Johannesburg, in Soweto Township. Soweto is an abbreviation for the “South West African Township” and that name is no coincidence. Soweto was a brutal creation, a cornerstone of racist apartheid colonialism in South Africa. In 1885, one of the world’s most hectic gold rushes saw fortune seekers from all over the world flood Johannesburg. Shanty towns quickly grew around the gold mines and workers of all races lived in squalor together. Migrant Black workers came to Johannesburg to work in the gold mines in the 1930s and settled in the part of Johannesburg called Sophiatown. As their numbers swelled, the white Dutch-Afrikaner colonial government forcibly relocated tens of thousands of them to what is now called Soweto. Vilakazi Street is Soweto’s “high street.” Soweto grew to become a crowded reservoir where Black residents of Johannesburg could be contained in one place and their movements could be checked by the colonial government. Their labor provided a nearby resource for the grueling work in the mines.

In 1941, Nelson Mandela, then in his twenties, arrived in Soweto. He had traveled from Transkei, his rural homeland, 694 kilometers away from Johannesburg. Transkei was another Black enclave created by the racist apartheid government to contain Black South Africans. Mandela arrived in Soweto looking for work in the burgeoning gold mines. He settled on Vilakazi Street in a tiny red brick house that has now become a famous tourist attraction. He soon found himself at the heart of the anticolonial struggle, and eventually was arrested and spent decades in prison.

This year I returned to Vilakazi Street and Soweto Township and was astonished to find so much of “the new” in a place that feels like “the old.” South Africa’s economy has flopped and the country now has the world’s highest youth joblessness. In Soweto, the orderly worker bus-lines are gone because the factories have closed. Many moved their production to China and jobs are hard to come by. The population today is a mixture of Black South Africans and Black African immigrants from outside the country. Where morning bus lines used to rush factory workers to Johannesburg, now wooden stalls are arranged at the edge of the street, hosting vendors of cigarettes, oranges, vegetables or barbecued corn, trying to make ends meet.In the middle of Soweto’s economic misery Vilakazi Street still feels like an oasis of pleasure and extravagance.

Vilakazi Street is doing well, it seems. The beats of music from restaurants in Vilakazi Street transport tourists to far-away Nigeria, Jamaica, or even Toronto, Canada, with the songs of hiphop star, Drake. Rows of cellphone towers now stand close to the street so that well-heeled tourists never drop a signal. On my return visit I take a coffee at Sakhumzi Restaurant, the most famous eatery on Vilakazi Street. I can’t help but notice that gates of nearby homes are now plastered with advertisements for condoms (Durex), banks (Citibank), and flight reservations companies such as Cheapflights.

In 1952, when Soweto-resident Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned, the houses of Vilakazi Street were four-roomed affairs of forty square-meters (the size of a middle-class family’s main room) made of red brick and asbestos, a crude box to contain the spirit of the Black factory worker or mine laborer, a way to limit his ambition. As I dive into a plate of Sakhumzi’s “Boervors,” South African sausages, I see the houses of Vilakazi Street all seem to be remodeled or replaced with two-story mini apartments and eight-room hostels. Electric fences have gone up. Green lawns are trimmed, asbestos roofing has given way to sun-kissed clay tiles, and driveways compete for space with the flowerbeds.

“It’s to capture the tourist dollar, nothing else,” Jack Sikwale, a car-guard outside the famous Sakhumzi Restaurant, tells me. “The remodeling of houses here started around 2009, when the internet caught up with South Africa, and it took off entirely after  ‘Air BnB’ landed.” I rushed through my meal of sausages, quaffing some Castle lager, then ventured properly into Vilakazi Street to, among other things, peer into the courtyard of the famous colonial house where Nelson Mandela lived until his 1952 arrest and jailing.

The gentrification of Vilakazi Street quickly comes into focus, as a dozen or so photographers, sporting the latest Nikon DSLR cameras, ambush me for a $5 photograph that I have not requested. They are doing it to everybody who looks like a tourist. “Five dollars for a portrait of you,” one offers, showing me the display on their DSRL cameras, having already photographed me without permission. The harassment works, and I reluctantly part ways with my $5 and allow him to print out my picture.

The photographers of Vilakazi Street are a symptom of something that afflicts many parts of many cities today: consumerism has gentrified the high street, while the rest of Soweto Township is still stuck in economic struggles of the past and present. Visitors prefer Vilakazi Street and they pay homage to the presence of Nelson Mandela’s and Bishop Tutu’s houses. The blocks surrounding these historic houses might fool a first-time visitor into thinking that these famous men lived in a prestigious neighborhood, and not the dusty, foot-beaten dormitory township created in the 50s to forcibly house Black Africans separately from “whites.”  Despite Vilakazi Street being colloquially known as ‘Mandela Street’, his old house has, I see, been remodeled to become bigger, with swanky glass fitted on the doors and  gates guarded by the global, corporate security firm G4S.

What really intrigues me is how the new cosmopolitan spirit of Vilakazi Street has caught up with the old houses as the street winds south. Families here are also courting the tourist economy of Vilakazi Street by converting their family homes into AirBnB rentals.

“The houses in front of Vilakazi Street used to bag all the money before AirBnB came,” Gogo Sinyolo, 55, tells me. (Gogo means granny in South Africa’s Zulu language.) She decided to convert her entire home into an Air BnB rental to catch some of the tourists visiting Vilakazi Street. “I’m only left with one room for myself.”

As I leave Vilakazi Street, I find myself confusing the street I visited as a young child, in the early 2000s—back when the internet wasn’t a thing in South Africa, yet, and word-of-mouth and printed guides brought tourists here—with the Vilakazi Street that’s become some sort of upper class Instagram pilgrimage site. When I visit Vilakazi Street today, I sometimes feel for a fleeting moment as if I am on a fantastical Dubai waterfront.

13 October, 2022